Patriots

The Patriots have yet to beat a high-quality quarterback. Will it happen Thursday against Josh Allen and the Bills?

The Patriots have seen Allen at his best, but he has not been right lately.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff
Josh Allen and the Bills pounded the Patriots, 47-17, in last season's wild-card round.


Welcome to Season 11, Episode 12 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup …

Eleven games into the season, here are two of the important items still remaining on the Patriots’ to-do list.

1. Defeat a high-quality quarterback.

2. Give their own quarterback the tools and coaching to prove that he can become a high-quality player himself.

Neither is an easy assignment, but the Patriots have an opportunity to do both in Thursday night’s matchup with the defending AFC East champion Bills. Buffalo is led by gifted quarterback Josh Allen, a presumed Most Valuable Player favorite early in the season who has hit something of a rut lately while he tries to play though an elbow injury.

Advertisement:

The Patriots have seen Allen at his best — he threw for five touchdowns against them without an interception in the Bills’ 47-17 vanquishing of the Patriots in last season’s wild-card round — but he has not been right lately.

The Patriots have lost to Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers, and Kirk Cousins this season. Allen is better than all of them, but if his arm is giving him trouble, he might be vulnerable against a talented Patriots defense that is eager to bounce back from a rough showing against the Vikings.

But all was not lost against the Vikings. The Patriots came out of the 33-26 loss with one crucial bright spot: Second-year quarterback Mac Jones played by far his best game of the season.

Jones completed 28 of 39 passes for 382 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He did not throw an interception, was quick and decisive with his throws, connected on some shots downfield, and looked for the most part like the poised, promising rookie of a year ago. It would be huge for the Patriots if he can build some momentum off that Thursday.

Kick it off, Folk, and let’s get this thing started …

Three players to watch other than the quarterbacks

Stefon Diggs: Allen’s go-to receiver is forever linked to the receiver who tormented the Patriots last Thursday, the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson. Diggs, unhappy after five productive seasons in Minnesota because the Vikings were too committed to the running game, was traded along with a seventh-round pick to the Bills in March 2020 for their first-round pick that draft and three later selections. The Bills used that top selection, No. 22 overall, to select Jefferson, in the proverbial Move That Worked Out For Everyone Except For NFL Cornerbacks.

Advertisement:

Jefferson, who had nine catches for 139 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots on Thanksgiving, and Diggs have similar numbers this season. Jefferson has caught 81 passes for 1,232 yards and 5 touchdowns, while Diggs has 84 catches for 1,110 yards, and 9 scores. They’ve essentially been the second- and third-most productive receivers in the NFL this season behind Miami dynamo Tyreek Hill.

Since coming to the AFC East, Diggs has had his share of excellent games against the Patriots, including a 9-catch, 145-yard, 3-touchdown torching in Week 15 in 2020.

Jonathan Jones, who has been a revelation as an outside cornerback this season, should get the Diggs assignment. Jones had two unfortunate facemask penalties against the Vikings, but he didn’t necessarily play badly against Jefferson. An outstanding receiver made outstanding plays. Jones and the Patriots need to avoid another similar fate against Diggs Thursday.

Even with quality receiving options in Gabe Davis, Isaiah McKenzie (11 catches for 125 yards in the Week 15 meeting last season), and tight end Dawson Knox (who scored the first two touchdowns in the playoff rout), Allen will force throws Diggs’s way.

Kyle Dugger: Allen was battling through some inconsistencies throwing the ball even before suffering an elbow injury late in the Bills’ Week 9 loss to the Jets, an injury that has affected his velocity and accuracy.

Advertisement:

After building a foundation for an MVP case with 17 touchdown passes and just 4 interceptions through six games, Allen threw two interceptions in each of the Bills’ first three games after their Week 7 bye.

He has not made mistakes in the air against the Patriots lately — he has 13 touchdown passes without an interception over the past four meetings — but the disconnect between what his arm is capable of right now and what he dares to attempt could lead to some opportunities for Dugger and the Patriots’ other defensive backs.

Stopping Allen on the ground rather than through the air could be a more difficult task for the Patriots. At 6 feet 5 inches and 237 pounds, he has no business being as fast as he is. The Bills almost seemed to forget to deploy him as a runner in the windy first meeting last season; he had just six carries for 39 yards. But in the two Bills wins, including in the playoffs, Allen totaled 130 yards on 18 carries, seeming to pick up any chunk of yardage that the Bills needed at the moment.

Dugger, who is listed at 6-2 and 220 pounds, is one of the few NFL safeties who possess the physicality to make Allen regret leaving the pocket. It will require a team effort by the defense to hem in Allen, but Dugger — who played last season’s playoff game with a cast on his right hand — will be essential to the cause.

Rhamondre Stevenson: It’s easy to overlook now given how two of the teams’ three meetings played out, but the Patriots did run the ball effectively — in one game insultingly so — against the Bills last season.

Advertisement:

In their 14-10 win in Week 13, Jones three just three passes, while the Patriots ran 46 times — including on 32 straight offensive plays at one point — for 222 yards. Damien Harris picked up 111 of those yards, which included a 64-yard, first-quarter TD run, on just 10 carries before leaving with an injury. Stevenson took it from there, finishing with a hard-fought 78 yards on 24 carries in the Patriots’ seventh straight win.

We tend to think of the Bills’ Week 16 win as a blowout, but a Harris touchdown run cut their lead to 26-21 midway through the fourth quarter, and he finished with 103 yards and three touchdowns. (Stevenson missed that one with an illness.) Even in the playoff game, in which the Patriots trailed,14-0, after a quarter and, 27-3, at halftime, they managed a respectable 89 rushing yards on 20 carries while playing catch-up.

Now, the Patriots’ running game, ranked 22nd in the NFL at 109 yards per game, has been sputtering lately. Stevenson has been more effective as a receiver than a runner lately — over the last five games, he has 232 rushing yards compared with 273 receiving yards — while Harris is expected to miss the game with a thigh injury.

The Bills have strong numbers against the run (105.6 yards allowed per game, seventh in the NFL), but we have seen the Patriots pierce them before, even when they knew it was coming.

Grievance of the week

So much from the missed opportunity against the Vikings has lingered annoyingly over the past week. The hapless officiating, from overturning the Hunter Henry touchdown — I have no idea if the ball touched the ground and neither did the officials, because his dark gloves made it impossible to tell — to the blatant yank to Mac Jones’s facemask that went unnoticed by the Cataract Zebras. The Patriots’ poor situational football, from aborted plays to bad judgment, such as Henry failing to get out of bounds after a catch just before halftime. Good field position, wasted. Undisciplined penalties. As currently constituted, the Patriots don’t have the wiggle room to overcome inept officiating, and the traits that defined them for so many years — avoiding crucial mistakes, playing with discipline and smarts — have too often gone missing. They need that old team-wide knack for doing what they need exactly when they need it to come back.

Advertisement:

Prediction, or Sean McDermott looks like a humorless version of Bill Burr …

Does the name Tommy Doyle ring a bell? No, he’s not a local actor who played a bank robber in “The Town,” at least as far as I know. He’s the Bills lineman who caught Allen’s fifth touchdown pass of the day in last season’s playoff game to give the Bills a 47-10 lead in the fourth quarter. Doyle was the Bills’ victory cigar, and a blatant way to rub their cathartic victory in the Patriots’ faces.

The Bills destroyed the Patriots, scoring touchdowns on their first seven drives, and they savored it, rubbed it in, and ran it up. It’s understandable given what it meant to them, and it’s not as if Bill Belichick and the Patriots have always refrained from lighting up the scoreboard when the outcome was long settled.

But it would serve the Patriots well Thursday night to remember Touchdown Tommy Doyle and what the Bills did to them. Not because it will necessarily spur them to victory. But because every drop of fuel helps in a game you have to win against a superior opponent.

I don’t think the Patriots have enough to win, unless Allen is more injured than we know or temporarily regresses to the erratic ways of his NFL youth. The Bills are more talented, even with injuries to Von Miller and assorted defensive backs. They’ve beaten at least one excellent team in the Chiefs. The Patriots cannot seem to muster that defining win against a quality opponent. I’m at the point that I’ll believe the Patriots can beat a genuinely good team when we actually see them do it. It’ll be close most of the way, but this won’t be the night. Bills 31, Patriots 23.

Advertisement:

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com